Madison The Mecca For German Wheel Gymnastics

by Joel Waldinger
| July 11, 2017

Just over a decade ago a niche sport rolled into Madison. In Europe and specifically Germany, it has become a national phenomenon.  Here in the United States, not so much. However, two Madison athletes are well on their way to changing that perception. Both Jeremy Perkins and Carly Schuna discovered this unique circus apparatus called the German Wheel while actually studying how to juggle. The giant wheel with two hoops captured their attention. Perkins said, "I thought it looked really interesting and I gave it a spin.”  What he discovered was when the wheel is in motion it transports him to an entirely different world. Schuna’s fascination happened in a very similar way. “I had never seen one before, so I stepped on and I never wanted to get off,” Schuna said.

It was invented in 1925 by a German railway worker named Otto Feick. He was a prisoner of war and while he was behind bars he had these ideas about this new gymnastics device that he could roll along the railroad tracks. When he finally got out of prison, he built a prototype and it caught on. It premiered as an exhibition sport at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Sometimes three or more gymnasts, men and women, rode the wheel round and round. It has stayed mostly niche sport while also spreading into the circus world as performance art in shows like Cirque du Soleil.

The art form spread into Wisconsin during the last decade when it arrived in Madison.  A German by the name of Wolfgang Beintzle is an eigh- time world champion. He is credited with bringing the sport of German Wheel to the U.S. when he moved to Chicago. He was also a wheel performer with Cirque Du Soleil. He started training kids in Chicago. Schuna admits that when they first invited Beintzle to Madison they were just kind of rocking back and forth on the wheel. Beintzle taught them new tricks and the limitless possibilities on the wheel.  “My mind was just blown,” Schuna said. She started training with Beintzle and going to Chicago every so often to get better at wheel. Perkins also went to Chicago for training. In order to get better they would need to practice more and more.

Carly Schuna and her boyfriend Luke Emery found a place to practice in the back of an auto mechanics shop at a used car dealership on Madison’s near east side. While it wasn't the best environment, the duo didn’t have anywhere else to go. From the ground up and with the help of other circus performers it eventually became the Madison Circus Space. This space set the wheels in motion to make Madison a mecca for German Wheel in the United States. There are less than a half dozen facilities in the U.S. where you can train on German Wheel. There are probably fewer than 300 people in the U.S. who are wheeling, whereas there are thousands in Germany. As a result of the Madison Circus Space, Wisconsin now has one of the most popular German Wheel programs in the country and has more participants than Chicago.

Perkins trained at the Madison Circus Space and won his first U.S. men’s national title in 2016. Perkins remembers that moment, “That felt great. It was a blast. I love competing and performing German Wheel, and winning the United States competition gave me the opportunity to compete in the World Championships.” Schuna is a three-time women’s national champion and has other motivations for competing. “I'm just trying to get through it, trying to not freak out, trying to stay focused, and trying to enjoy as much as I can,” Schuna said. The German Wheel community is close-knit and advice from other competitors and coaches flows freely. So when she gets the opportunity to compete she is also getting feedback from the world's best.

There are three flavors of German Wheel. Straight line where you're rolling back and forth in a line while performing tricks. Spiral where you're going in a circle on the side of the wheel. Vault where you set the wheel in motion and you run after it, get yourself to the top of the wheel, and do some type of flip off the wheel and hopefully stick the landing like other gymnastic disciplines. Jeremy and Carly make it look easy but the sport can be dangerous at every turn. The more daring the trick, the more risk involved. Perkins said, “It can be really dangerous. It's very different from a lot of circus arts because you can't use mats because it's a dynamic apparatus.”

She is now teaching the next generation German Wheelers in the space she and Emery transformed into a shared workout facility for all circus disciplines. Next year, the Circus Space will be torn down and replaced with an apartment complex. While that is a challenge for the future, it's also an opportunity to grow and expand to a larger space. The goal is to build a new warehouse near the original Circus Space where there will be more room for classes, workshops and individual members to practice. Schuna said, “We want a space where everybody could practice the circus art that inspires them and to share it with other people who have similar interests.”

Schuna hopes to forgo her freelance writing and turn the German Wheel into a teaching career. She admits the wheel has changed her life. Schuna said, “I love everything about German Wheel, so to be doing what I love and getting paid to do it every day is just awesome. I feel so lucky.”  In a few short years these elite athletes have come full circle from simply wonder about the wheel to becoming national champions. Perkins says at the end of the day he is happy to have been a part of starting a community that will exist long after he stops doing German Wheel. Schuna probably sums up her feelings best this way, “I finally found this thing that I had been waiting for my whole life that I didn't even know that I had been waiting for.”

Tags: German Wheel / circus / olympics / Otto Feick / Berlin / Cirque du Soleil

Joel Waldinger is a reporter for the "Wisconsin Life" project and considers a sunset over the “big island” on Manson Lake to be a perfect ending to a day of fishing and fun in the Northwoods.